There were plenty of questions surrounding Josh McCown as the Chicago Bears prepared to take on the Green Bay Packers Monday night. He answered a ton of them, going 22-of-41 passing for 272 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Bears’ 27-20 victory.
Like clockwork, though, plenty of people instantly took the victory as a cue to ask questions about Cutler's future:
As big a fan as I am of Cutler's, have to believe some Bears fans wondering if Trestman should stick with McCown.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) November 5, 2013
Now, it would be easy to dismiss Mr. Bayless’ comments as just another example of him trying to rile passions in a fan base, but the fact of the matter is that he was absolutely right. There are a fair number of Bears fans questioning whether the Bears should just let McCown start even if Cutler is healthy (if you don’t believe this, check out the @FacebookBears Twitter account).
Obviously, anyone making a reasonable assessment of the situation can see that Cutler is the correct guy to have under center if he is healthy enough to play, and all McCown really did on Monday night was show that the Bears don’t necessarily have to rush Cutler back if he isn’t fully healthy.
That shouldn't be the main topic of discussion surrounding the Bears’ soon-to-be free agent quarterback, however.
The real question that McCown’s performance has raised is whether or not the Bears have gotten more leverage as they evaluate whether or not to re-sign Cutler. The odds are strong that they will, considering the dearth of quarterbacks that will be available on the market. But did McCown’s performance knock down Cutler’s potential value by showing that it doesn’t take an elite quarterback to properly execute head coach Marc Trestman’s system?
After all, that system is predicated on getting rid of the ball quickly, taking advantage of mismatches and mixing in the run a fair amount to keep everyone off balance. That’s exactly what the Bears did all night long against a Green Bay defense that proved woefully ill-prepared in their game plan, and it was clear that even a guy whose arm isn’t as strong as Cutler’s can do the job in the offense.
To be fair, there are still benefits of having a guy like Cutler in the fold. The Bears have some tremendous weapons all over the field, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett all being capable of going up and winning jump balls thanks to their speed and size. That ability to be able to win one-on-one battles in all areas of the field makes the job much easier for a quarterback, but it also allows a guy like Cutler to fit the ball into a tight gap in coverage and expect his guy to get it, and there truly aren’t many quarterbacks capable of making those types of throws.
In addition to that quickness on his throws, Cutler is capable of turning the types of one-on-one matchups the Packers opted for last night into bigger throws further down the field than most quarterbacks. His back-shoulder throw to Martellus Bennett in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings is one that McCown certainly is not capable of making, and neither was his pass to the corner of the end zone that Earl Bennett hauled in late in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3. Being able to throw the deep ball is a good asset, but throwing it accurately to where only your receiver can catch it is a tremendous asset, and it can be argued that Cutler can do that for a team.
With all of that in mind, though, we come back to the fundamental question of whether or not McCown’s performance impacted Cutler’s salary for 2014.
The truth of the matter is the team likely was never going to give Cutler the kind of money that guys like Tony Romo and Joe Flacco got, because of a combination of factors. For starters, they probably don’t feel Cutler is in the upper echelon of quarterbacks that can command that kind of salary, but there is also an element of the team not being able to afford it, considering all of the rebuilding they will have to do all over the field, with a slew of free agents needing to be re-signed.
With that in mind, the Bears should still try to bring back Cutler, but in doing so, they have to keep an eye toward the future. Using the franchise tag on Cutler seems like a good place to start, but that move (which would likely cost the Bears between $17 and $18 million in cap space for next season) would have to be followed up by GM Phil Emery spending a draft pick on a quarterback in the first or second round of the NFL Draft, with an eye on grooming him to become the starter when Jay leaves.
With so many holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, spending a first- or second-round pick on a quarterback would likely be a mistake for the Bears. The more logical approach would be to offer Cutler a three-year contract with a salary of around $11 to $12 million, which is probably better than any deal he would be offered on the open market. That way, the Bears can lock in their quarterback for a reasonable salary AND still have the flexibility to rebuild an aging defense through the draft.
Letting Cutler walk at this point in the Trestman era would probably be a mistake, considering the many other areas of the team that need to be shored up. Keeping him in the fold at a reasonable cost and bringing in new talent seems like the perfect thing for Emery to do over the offseason, and with so much work to do on defense, having a quarterback in place would mean one less headache for him as he goes about that arduous task.